Pakistan's Musharraf: In Search of a Political Comeback?

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Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

Pervez Musharraf, the former President of Pakistan, talks during the launch of his new political party, the "All Pakistan Muslim League" in central London, England.

It was a study in contrasts. Pervez Musharraf entered politics as a powerful army chief in 1999 who seized power in a bloodless coup, basically from 30,000 feet in the air as a civilian leader tried to thwart his return to the country. On Friday, the former military chief sought to make a second entry into Pakistan's rough-and-tumble political scene — but this time he was reduced to having to do so from thousands of miles away in London, to just scores of supporters, and with none of the generals and politicians he once led by his side.

The political launch opened with a rare display of humility that had eluded him during his nearly nine years in power. "I take this opportunity to sincerely apologize to the whole nation for those wrong decisions," Musharraf told his supporters, though he did not specify what those mistakes were. Then, within moments, he returned to the brusque tones that Pakistanis are better acquainted with. There was a need, he said, to "bring all patriotic people under one flag, that flag should be the All Pakistan Muslim League" — his newly founded political party, one he formed after his erstwhile supporters abandoned him.

Musharraf boasted that he remains popular back at home — an assertion many Pakistanis would dispute, though the general will proudly counter any skepticism by pointing to the 200,000 followers he has accumulated on Facebook. Musharraf said that he would be returning to Pakistan at an undecided date — echoing the old bravado with which he used to claim that he would never leave. If he ever does he return, however, he is likely to be confronted by a formidable array of opponents, all nursing bitter memories of his military rule.

Indeed, it is unlikely that Musharraf will abandon the comforts of exile in London any time soon. "I think Musharraf will remain away from Pakistan for many years," says a senior Western diplomat. Crucially, Musharraf no longer has the backing of the powerful army he once led. "There's one thing to be army chief in Pakistan, and completely another to enter politics as an ex-general," says former cricket legend turned politician Imran Khan, speaking in Islamabad. "Gen. Musharraf will notice that difference if he ever does return." The army doesn't appear keen on his return either. According to Talat Hussain, a senior Pakistani journalist who is considered familiar with the current army leadership's thinking, "The current military leadership, which has improved its image, is making every effort to distance themselves from Musharraf's legacy."

The politicians who once loyally formed his cabinet sound similarly allergic. "He has no political base here," says Aftab Sherpao, who served as interior minister under Musharraf from 2004-to 2007. "He won't be able to move around because of security risks." Undimmed threats from a range of Islamist militants will certainly prevent Musharraf from leading political rallies. "And even the program that he's offering is what he said he'd do while in power," adds Sherpao, with a sharp note of exasperation. "He failed then, he has no chance now."

Some of Musharraf's traditional opponents express bewilderment at the former military ruler's attempt to cast himself as a new man beginning a new political life. "He's like a whore, who having reached old age, and wanting to get married, is declaring himself a virgin," says Khwaja Muhammad Asif, a leading parliamentarian from the opposition party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (who was the man who tried to keep Musharraf's plane from landing back in 1999). "It's ridiculous. This guy was both in uniform and politics for nearly nine years. He's deceiving nobody but himself."

Others are more restrained, and merely amused by the attempted political relaunch. "There was a time when I used to feel angry at the mere mention of Musharraf, after he had disposed the chief justice and suspended the constitution," says Aitzaz Ahsan, leader of the so-called lawyers' movement that shook Musharraf's regime in 2007. "Now I can only laugh. He is no Don Quixote. He's a mere Sancho Panza riding at the windmills. His party launch was the biggest non-event of the decade."

Pakistan's excitable news channels appeared to treat it as such. Instead of lavishing serious attention, one channel played a montage showing Musharraf's taste for the high life. In one scene, he was on the stage, dancing with Pakistani film stars. In another, he went toe-to-toe with a classical singer, echoing his rendition of an Urdu song. The images then returned to the relatively chastened figure of Musharraf in exile. Other channels merely showed interviews with unforgiving enemies, from former judges to nationalists from Pakistan's far western province of Baluchistan.

None of which is to say that there aren't a few Pakistanis who are yearning for Musharraf's return home. It's just that they do so for reasons very different from the ones he laid out at his press conference in London. In Baluchistan, the nationalists hope to see Musharraf tried for the assassination of Akbar Bugti, the tribal leader, whose death in 2006 set the province ablaze in protest. In the southern province of Sindh, supporters of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto hope he will be questioned about his alleged failure to provide her with adequate security, as a U.N. Commission report detailed. In Punjab, Sharif is keen to see Musharraf tried for "high treason" for mounting the 1999 coup that overthrew him and the imposition of a state of emergency in November 2007. As some wry observers put it, with Musharraf "wanted" so much this way, the ex-dictator could prove to be a source of much-needed cohesion in a politically fractious country.